You know, I think it’s your wry sense of humor that I like best about you.
Alas, the Communications Department at my particular moderately-priced, fairly well-regarded public university didn’t put much stock in practical skills and hands-on experience. Instead, we were drilled on theory, most of it filtered through a kind of anarcho-socialist world view that makes The Nation read like it was edited by neo-cons. My schooling in the rigors of Communications consisted of the following lessons:
There. Read those three things over and over again for the next few days and you will know as much about Communications as someone who spent four years at a moderately-priced, fairly well-regarded public university on the Pacific coast.
Thus armed with the knowledge imparted upon me by my college’s tenured hippies, I parlayed my degree into a career in the media, where I am presently responsible for twisting and distorting information to suit the whims of my corporate masters. In my spare time, I help keep the masses down by writing about television. The Man, as it turns out, pays surprisingly well.
Reading that last paragraph over, I guess it’s no longer that big a mystery why I’m not invited to many class reunions.
My undergraduate days of corporate conspiracy and leftist cant came rushing back to me last month, when Comcast made a $54 billion bid to take the Walt Disney Co. off Michael Eisner’s bumbling hands. Had the deal gone through, Comcast — easily the largest cable company in an industry not known for its mom-and-pop operations — would have gotten its mitts on a major entertainment studio that cranks out movies, TV shows, records and books; a theme-park empire; a clutch of cable networks, including ESPN and all its many off-shoots; and ABC, which I believe is some sort of loose affiliation of UHF stations broadcasting old Mole reruns. Disney’s board of directors, realizing that $54 billion would barely cover a weekend trip by a family of four to Epcot Center, spurned the offer. But as if you’ve ever had to explain to Comcast’s telemarketers that you are perfectly happy with the basic-cable package and would not like to order the seven additional channels of Starz!, you know that this is not a company used to taking “no” for an answer.
I imagine my old Communications professors picked up their papers the morning the Comcast takeover bid went public and nearly choked on their organic, unprocessed wheat germ. Or fired a sternly worded Letter to the Editor off to Mother Jones. Or spent the better part of the afternoon berating their students about the evils of corporate hegemony. Which wouldn’t make it that much different from any other day, actually. Only this time, they might have a point about Comcast. And I’m not even saying that because my GPA depends on it.
Oh, don’t misunderstand me — this isn’t some Bagdikian-fueled rant about the dangers of media conglomerates. Remember — I’m a dupe for those people. No, my problem isn’t necessarily that consolidation has put too much power in the hands of too few owners. Rather, it’s that consolidation is placing too much power in the hands of too few owners who also happen to be screamingly incompetent. If I’m going to be placed at the mercy of corporate interests — and given the inclinations present administration, I expect we’ll be wrapping up the paperwork on that sometime in early 2006 — the least I can expect is for the multi-tentacled corporate monstrosity to handle my business with some dispatch.
In short, if I’m to live in a nightmarish world, better that it be more like George Orwell’s 1984 than Steven Speilberg’s 1941. The former, while a chilling picture of the dangers of totalitarianism, at least describes a society where things are run efficiently, if a bit ruthlessly; on the other hand, the latter — a tedious and wince-inducing comedy from a man more at home filming mechanical sharks and mountains made of mashed potatoes — illustrates the dangers of handing a blank check over to someone who’s clearly out of their depth.
And few are more out of their depth than the men and women who make up today’s Comcast.
First and foremost, there is the bad service. I think anyone who’s ever spent any amount of time under Comcast’s thumb probably could fill the next several paragraphs recounting their own bad-service horror stories. In the interests of space, I’ll limit mine to simply reporting that in the four months since my wife and I have moved into our lavish Southern California estate, Comcast has had to send repair folk over to my home three times — that’s about three more 9-a.m.-to-1-p.m. service windows that I need in my life. (This figure does not count the half-dozen or so calls reporting technical difficulties that could be fixed over the phone.) On the occasions when I’ve had to explain that the cable box on our second television set is not receiving signals while the other cable box is working just fine, I’ve felt like I’d be better off explaining to apes how to make fire. And on the morning when my Internet service — also provided through the courtesy of Comcast — went out within minutes of my cable service, I found myself having to call two separate numbers to explain two problems to the same company.
Isn’t one of the benefits of being a bloated industrial monolith the fact that you only have to set up one phone number for putting irate customers on hold?
Not that Comcast doesn’t try to make amends for its service butchery. A couple months back, we had a cable outage that knocked out our HBO channels for a day or so. As subscribing HBO increases our monthly cable bill by — and I’m estimating roughly here — $10,000, our inability to watch countless repeat showings of “Powder” and “Arliss” reruns left us understandably testy. After a heated phone call to Comcast in which we explained that it’s generally considered bad form to accept payment for services and then not provide them, we received in the mail an apologetic card from Comcast along with a coupon for a free pay-per-view movie. “Up to a $3.99 value!” the coupon declared.
Honey, put on your best dress and break out the fancy pearls — we’re watching Jeepers Creepers 2 tonight!
Now what makes my interactions with Comcast especially funny are the commercials the cable operator constantly broadcasts in which it heralds its stellar track record of customer service and reliability. Oh wait — did I say “funny?” Pardon, my English is not too good — I meant to say “infuriating to the point where the mere sight of a Comcast ad makes my head swarm with bees and my eyes fill with blood and my face develop some sort of uncontrollable tic.”
Comcast has an entire series of ads in which families recount the multitude of slights and agonies they suffered at the hands of satellite providers before they wised up and put their home-entertainment needs in the hands of those selfless problem-solvers at Comcast. Having never owned a satellite dish, I can’t attest to the veracity of these claims — I’ve run into people that swear by DirecTV and those who curse its name to the heavens. But, having witnessed Comcast’s deft customer service efforts first-hand, I can’t imagine how a satellite TV outfit could possibly do any worse, unless the customer service reps end each phone call with a string of profanities or the guy who comes to install your dish runs off with your wife or that the business provider is nothing more than a mob front. And even then, it still might be a draw.
(Then again, Comcast has a bee in its bonnet when it comes to satellite television. After all, when the protection of limited competition helps you rake in $18.5 billion in revenue — 35 percent of your industry’s total sales — you’d be understandably peeved should a viable alternative like satellite TV emerge to muscle in on your business. Just be thankful if you only have to worry about pissy commercials decrying satellite television — in the Bay Area, Comcast pays its employees a bonus for providing the names or addresses of neighbors who have satellite dishes, according to this San Francisco Chronicle article. “If one of our employees notices that a house in the neighborhood has a satellite dish, they’ll make a note of it,” Comcast spokesman Andrew Johnson told the Chronicle. “We’ll put it in our database and then turn it over to our marketing folks. Then they’ll hopefully work their magic.” Presumably, that means “repeated phone calls while you’re trying to eat dinner” and not “late-night visits from gangs of local toughs,” though I wouldn’t put the latter past Comcast.)
I could deal with all of this — the lousy service, the inefficient use of phone lines, the paltry pay-per-view coupons offered as recompense, the Captain Queeg-like paranoia about those devilish satellite TV companies — were it not for one commercial so awful, so hideous, so positively hateful that I have taken a blood vow against Comcast and all its subsidiaries. This one Comcast commercial so perfectly encapsulates all that is wrong with that company and why it is unfit to handle its own affairs, let alone those of Disney’s.
The commercial begins with a married couple enjoying a lovely meal at what I assume to be the kind of local Italian eatery — my clue: the faux relief of Mediterranean pastoral scenes behind their table — aimed at diners who consider an evening at The Olive Garden to be “putting on airs.” The woman frets about their adolescent son, left home alone so she and hubby can enjoy their $7.95 plate of noodles and Ragu. The husband reassures her — their son is a good boy, a smart kid, not the kind to get himself in any sort of trouble. “Besides,” the husband says, “he doesn’t have the code for the cable box.” Cut to the their son, looking flabbergasted that Comcast’s confounded parental controls and channel locks are preventing him from ordering “Sex House 3” on pay-per-view. Cut back to the parents laughing maniacally at their son’s folly. The commercial ends before we can see whether the son, denied his chance to see boobies in digital-cable clarity, decides to commit himself to a life of quiet contemplation and prayer or whether he winds up breaking into Dad’s liquor cabinet.
This commercial is so wrong on so many levels. First of all, as a former teenage boy, I can assure you that nothing — not even some cable company’s fancy-pants parental control or channel lock — will stop us from watching programming we really shouldn’t. Back in my day, my parents had a few parental controls of their — they called them “savage beatings” and “the threat of eternal damnation” — and that didn’t stop me from trying to dial in the scrambled Playboy Channel in the vain hopes of identifying and illicit body part or two. So if I was willing to risk the wrath of both my mother and Almighty God just to see a digitally scrambled boob, what chance does Comcast think it has of stopping me and those of my ilk?
But let’s pretend for a second that Comcast does possess the space-age technology to stop horny teenage boys in their tracks and make them slink off in shame and self-recrimination like that poor, dumb kid in the TV ad. Who on earth — other than lazy people eager to hand off their parenting obligations to a multibillion-dollar corporation — would want such a thing? The hooter-obsessed youth who a decade or two ago were jury-rigging cable descramblers out of tinfoil and coffee stirrers so that they could catch a fleeting glimpse of Sybil Danning and Shannon Tweed are now running companies, designing products, shaping industries. They are developing the technologies that will drive our economy back into the boom times. But Comcast apparently wants to put the kibosh on all that. Comcast doesn’t like it when people challenge the rules. Comcast wants a neat and orderly world where any and all creative impulses are snuffed out before they can take root, lest they ruin mom and dad’s passable spaghetti dinner down at Luigi’s House of Noodles. And maybe Comcast is right — maybe people are eager to embrace a world of conformity and dullards and boob-free television.
Me? I’d rather die.
And so I shudder to think what would happen if Comcast ever got its covetous mitts on Disney, and Uncle Walt’s old company began soaking in Comcast’s peculiar brand of corporate culture. Would the SportsCenter anchors only give the baseball scores at some point during a four-hour service window? Would viewers who call up to complain when The Bachelor gets pre-empted receive a coupon for a free Miramax rental? Would Comcast employees snoop around looking for neighbors who don’t tune into ABC? And would those neighbors then receive menacing phone calls from Jim Belushi pestering them to watch According to Jim? Worst of all, would ABC be subject to intermittent outages and reception problems, preventing people from tuning into It’s All Relative and My Wife and Kids and whatever other bland, inconsequential programming the Mouse Network is airing these days.
Say, you know what? It probably would.
Maybe this merger isn’t such a bad idea after all.
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